Autumn is when the grapes have been harvested, their makers are relaxed and ready to talk vintages – and to taste them.
New Zealand wine regions are at their most spectacular in autumn when the days are long and bathed in late sunshine – it’s the perfect time to sip, savour and enjoy the country’s superstar sauvignon blancs, alternative albarinos and zesty rieslings.
Auckland: Gateway to New Zealand
West Auckland is where New Zealand’s wine began, thanks to the early Eastern European immigrants who brought grapevines with them. The descendants of those vines are red, copper and gold come autumn, when the winemakers have finished their harvest. Auckland is the nation’s wine-industry headquarters, with four destinations within an hour’s travel. Chardonnay specialist Kumeu River Wines is 20 minutes’ drive from the city, Waiheke Island is a 40-minute ferry ride from the CBD and the towns of Matakana and Warkworth are an hour’s drive north. Villa Maria Estate sits in the vast, vine-lined Ihumatao volcano – five minutes from Auckland Airport.
Auckland’s most settled weather is in autumn when the long, sunny days are at their most spectacular. Factor in extra time to visit wineries in West Auckland, Waiheke Island and further afield. The best way to get around is by car, but avoid peak hour before 9am and after 4pm.
Gisborne: Experimentation Central
Gisborne is the first city in the world to see the sun each day and one of the warmest places to while away the time, Chardonnay in hand, during long autumn days on this sunny coast. The fourth-largest wine region in the country, it is also known, casually, as the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand. The local winemakers make many of the country’s top examples, as well as gewurztraminer, chenin blanc and a growing menagerie of obscure on trend wines, such as albarino, marsanne and vermentino. Most wineries are small, owner-operated and welcome visitors.
Flying is the most direct route to Gisborne, taking an hour from most North Island cities. Those with more time may enjoy the extremely picturesque, if extremely winding, drive – either south from Auckland along the Bay of Plenty coast (six hours) or north from Hawke’s Bay (three hours).
Hawke’s Bay: Historic and Diverse
Hawke’s Bay has one of the finest summers in New Zealand each year – and one of its longest, thanks to its sun-drenched east coast position in the North Island. Mid-to-late autumn is ideal for visitors to enjoy the country’s second-biggest wine region, with nearly 5000 hectares of grapevines. The Bay’s best known wine area is the Gimblett Gravels, 800 hectares of stony ground which absorbs, retains and radiates heat to red grapes such as syrah, malbec and merlot. In cooler areas, pinot noir shows promise.
Flying is the most direct route to Hawke’s Bay, but visitors to Wellington can also hire a car and drive in a leisurely four hours. Production in the nation’s most diverse wine region ranges from tiny and historic, such as Esk Valley, through to the opulent Craggy Range.
The Wairarapa: Wellington Wine Country
Small but perfectly formed, this productive region on the east side of the Rimutaka Ranges enjoys settled weather in autumn, as well as a steady stream of vineyard events, such as marathons around the vines, country fairs and harvest events. The Wairarapa is home to only three per cent of New Zealand’s grapes, due to the decimating effects of strong spring winds, but while Mother Nature reduces profits, she raises the intensity of flavour. The best wines include Ata Rangi Pinot Noir, Nga Waka Riesling (dry), The Escarpment Vineyard’s Pinot Noir, Margrain Chenin Blanc and Martinborough Vineyard Chardonnay.
Hire a car in Wellington and drive over the Rimutaka Hill to the Wairarapa, which is made up of three main wine regions: Masterton, Gladstone and Martinborough. Hot spots include Poppies in Martinborough for lunch and tastings or, for a rural vibe, the Gladstone Inn or the Paper Road Bistro. If you’re into some serious tasting, you should stay over at Peppers Parehua in Martinborough or or one of the lovely boutique accommodations in nearby Greytown.
Marlborough: Sauvignon Blanc Central
Marlborough reigns in size, economic importance and production of New Zealand’s biggest wine success story to date: Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. It is busiest in summer during harvest – so visits are best in autumn, when the weather is generally warm and sunny. The region’s sauvignons now account for 85.6 per cent of the country’s exports, the vast majority from Marlborough where there are 141 wineries and a whopping 24,000 hectares of producing grapevines. Today, a wider range of styles are being made than ever before, something that was highlighted at the country’s first International Sauvignon Blanc Celebration in January 2016 where international media were also able to sample these new wave wines.
Marlborough receives flights from most major centres. Otherwise, take the Cook Strait ferry from Wellington to Picton, hire a car and drive to Blenheim (30 minutes). Stay at Hotel d’Urville, at the just opened Marlborough Lodge or on the region’s outskirts at Timara Lodge. Brancott Estate Heritage Centre is a must-visit for views, wines and food. You take a master class in sauvignon blanc or a gentle cycle on the vineyard tour.
Nelson: North of the South
Nelson is the northernmost wine region in the South Island and is known for its seaside café culture and outdoor living. Orcas and dolphins often visit the region during autumn, which is also when the vines’ colours are at their most beautiful; both make this the top season to explore the meandering and relaxed vibe of Nelson. Like its nearest neighbour (Marlborough), Nelson’s historic wine strengths have tended to be whites with chardonnay, gewurztraminer, riesling and sauvignon blanc harnessing a strong reputation. The best pinot noirs are now adding another string to the region’s wine bow.
Nelson is a two-hour drive from Marlborough or a 30-minute flight from Wellington. The World of Wearable Art Museum is a must-visit, as is the region’s most respected and oldest winery, Neudorf Vineyards. Others include Seifried Estate, Waimea Estates (a good lunch spot), Greenhough, Kina Beach, Kahurangi and Kaimira wineries.
North Canterbury: Emerging Excellence
Cool nights, hot days, long dry autumns and strong winds are the story of this dramatic wine region, 40 minutes north of Christchurch and now the hub of Canterbury’s wine industry. The region’s most exciting wines are its intense rieslings (both bone-dry and sweet ones). These wines are made possible by the long, relatively warm autumns here and the region’s dry sunny climate. This is home to many of the country’s rockstar wine brands, such as Pegasus Bay (a leading riesling and pinot noir producer) and Bellbird Spring (small and innovative). Others to visit include Pyramid Valley, Bell Hill and Greystone.
Christchurch International Airport is the gateway to the region and hire cars are needed to see the wineries. Accommodation is essentially a few top boutique lodges or hotels closer to the city. Lunch at Pegasus Bay Winery is a must, and Black Estate is another outstanding lunch spot.
Central Otago: The World’s Southernmost Wine Region
Central Otago is spectacular to visit in autumn when the burnished colours bathe the mountains in blankets of breathtaking beauty. Local winemakers are heavily reliant on pinot noir, with 80 per cent of their vineyards devoted to this early-ripening grape. The white wines here are dwarfed by pinot power, but the rieslings, pinot gris, pinot blancs, chenin blanc and chardonnays also offer exceptional quality. Gibbston Valley Wines is a top lunch spot, as is Carrick Estate at Bannockburn. Aurum Wines is a small, family-run affair with top-quality wines by French winemaker Lucie Lawrence.
Fly into Queenstown and choose from several wine tour operators or hire a car to visit wineries. The four key areas are Gibbston (30 minutes’ drive from Queenstown through Kawarau Gorge), Bannockburn, Alexandra and Wanaka (all about an hour’s drive). Adventure tourism is big business here, and for historic charm, head to Arrowtown, 20 minutes’ drive away.